Planning for People: Understanding Mixed-Use

Planning for People: Understanding Mixed-Use

The term “mixed-use” ought to earn top spot in the planning jargon hall of fame, for the number of times that these projects are heralded before our city planning commissions. What is promoted as “mixed-use”—in actual projects, policy discussions, and documents—never gets much scrutiny, as if simply stating the term brings immunity from analysis or critique. This can result in disappointment and unintended consequences stemming from projects approved that were allegedly the cure to a community’s homogenous planning and urban design results simply by being “mixed-use.”

This is not an attempt to degrade the values and concepts which mixed-use represents. The term actually counters decades of misguided and short-sighted planning. Conventional land-use planning and zoning intend to achieve compatibility by segregating uses, but creates an unreasonable scale, and distorts development patterns. Cars become a necessity, acting as personal bubbles that inhibit human contact.

urban street - view from inside a car

The last 50 years of car-based planning and development have driven our cities down the road to ruin. Cars have erased the human scale from traditional patterns of city-building, resulting in infrastructure we can’t afford to maintain and places of diminished cultural value.

Projects boasting mixed-use—but with none of the qualities of places people really enjoy and invest in—have nobody and everybody to blame. Planners compose broad districts and land-use categories for mixed-use and ignore the need for intensity, design, and compatibility. Developers take these designations and build mixed-use projects for cars with retail, hotel, and office pods spread out for easy car access and low-cost parking.

The promise of walkable, human-scale places is being deterred by our current model for development. The term “mixed-use” is simply a proxy to reorient conventional planning to patterns that originated with small city and town centers where the primary mode of transportation was walking. Preserved “centers” that exist today are isolated. They are typically disconnected from the neighborhoods and communities they serve by blankets of parking and high-speed roadways.

Too often the current model is planned at the automobile scale, discussed in “Planning for People, Not Cars.”  Every patron comes with a car, so parking is provided in great abundance, and the public realm is scaled to traffic rather than people. To reverse this, a better integration of complementary uses—a common example like housing and retail—is necessary. Density, diversity and human-scaled design is needed for a mixed-use center to be successful.

Below are key considerations that are essential to creating people-based mixed-use projects:

Market & Scale:

This is the economic sphere of influence that will impact the scale and use types of a proposed development. It informs the developer and policy makers what a viable development option for a site or area is by recognizing the existing uses and scale of development. The more specific the definition of the market, the more refined a development concept can be prepared.


The form of a building and pattern of development can influence the comfort of the spaces between buildings and their use. Good human-scaled planning consists of appropriately scaled buildings, consideration of relationships between the buildings and the public realm, transitions between adjacent structures, and transparency along a first floor. Public realm buffers—such as parked cars and streetscape—can protect pedestrians from traffic and create a comfortable enclosure while preserving a well-connected multi-modal transportation network.


Development projects need to take design cues from their surroundings.  The architectural character, landscape design, and street treatments of a development aid a building or outdoor space to blend into the existing fabric, contributing to the creation of a distinct, authentic place. At the same time, the design should have variations to create dynamic and interesting environments within the project.

Public Realm:

People make places active and productive, thus it is important to build spaces that are comfortable and enticing. The public realm plays an important part in this effort, as it is the front door to any development. This relationship creates the appealing, connected environments that users desire in a mixed-use environment.

Buildings and projects that stand in solitude and do not engage their context or patrons will not be successful.  While the first few may initially be popular, each addition ultimately detracts from the value when designed at an automobile scale.  Resilient mixed-use development is adaptable, active and relates to its surrounding context, where each new addition adds to the value and vitality of the place.

mixed-use lofts in Portland, Oregon

Resilient mixed-use development is adaptable, active and relates to its surrounding context (Image Credit:

Planning policies should not just allow mixed-use development, but should specify the ingredients necessary to create valuable places for people. Creating mixed-use policies, plans, and development regulations with these considerations elevates this type of project’s chance for success. These considerations also provide a measuring stick for evaluating the merit—or lack thereof—of any particular building or project, and can assist in the evolution of dynamic walkable places.

What project comes to mind when you think of a good mixed-use development? Comment below and let us know your thoughts.

-The Kansas City Planning Studio of Gould Evans